Published: 04/07/2002, Volume II2, No. 5812 Page 107
It is time for a war on spin. This week, there will be no quotation of entertainingly misdirected Ministry of Defence press releases, and no more no-smoking campaign poetry from Morecambe Bay Hospitals trust.
It is time to get tough on press releases and the causes of press releases .
That is right: press offices! The esteemed Medical Journalists Association has brought to Monitor's notice the hideous experiences that brave, healthrelated hacks face every day. Indeed, MJA is threatening to name and shame 'the press office from hell'. Freelance journo and MJA man Mark Pownall launched the mission in the wake of Royal College of GPs' guidelines on reporting an international GP research meeting in April. These required newshounds to 'clear' quotes with people who had 'just spoken publicly at a conference' and, worse, offer speakers 'carte blanche to 'unsay' anything controversial'. Monitor would be intrigued to see trust chief executives try the unsay technique next time an elderly patient in distress is splashed across the tabloids.
In a crackdown on unsaying and other restrictive practices, the MJA is surveying opinion on healthdom's finest press offices, and it offers as a taster a quick straw poll of hacks on one medical weekly. Monitor is pleased to report comments on gold-star winners, the Medical Defence Union - 'fast, friendly. . . faced with a bad story, do not stonewall', and the British Medical Association - 'a slick operation: media friendly, organises a good 'do''. A colleague of Monitor's bears out the 'good do' verdict: lucky hacks at the BMA conference in June were whisked off to a stately home, greeted by a string quartet and offered champagne before a splendid dinner. There is a press office that knows how to treat people.
Sad news, though, for the press office 'brickbat' winners. Monitor, revealing a hitherto well-concealed sensitivity to the feelings of others, chooses to let them remain incognito. Cluttering up the hall of notoriety is one that is described - perhaps slightly too frankly for Monitor's taste - as 'crap'. 'It fosters a culture of secrecy that matches the organisation.' Another that is not to the MJA survey's liking is 'inclined to rant and threaten', while press officers are 'unable to quote extempore without seeking clearance from everyone bar the Queen'. But the real venom is reserved for the 'worst of the bunch... a bloody nightmare; slow and virtually unobtainable by phone. They also have a knack of answering a question completely different from the one they were asked'. Monitor gleans that we have a situation offering room for improvement.